Persistent Mavericks find way to win

LOS ANGELES -- Rick Carlisle was back talking about persistence this and persistence that as his Dallas Mavericks headed into Game 1 of their semifinal showdown with the Los Angeles Lakers.

Persistence, Carlisle repeated, will win this series. He stressed the unequivocal need to "stay after" them and "stay into them." He warned how tough it would be, how treacherous stretches will test their mettle often and when least expected.

And somewhere in the swamps of New Jersey, Avery Johnson must be marveling at the fortitude of these gosh-darn Dallas Mavericks.

"That's what we've been living on all year," said Jason Terry, the picture of persistence even through self-inflicted wounds. "You know, we're a veteran team. When we face adversity we don't get down. We stick together and we find a way."

Kobe Bryant and the Lakers learned this in Monday night's 96-94 comeback win for the Mavs. L.A. was put on notice. Their three-peat hopes will be challenged by a team playing for broke and, quite frankly, looking for a fight.

Round 1 went unsuspectingly to Dallas, even after it threatened to melt down and trailed 60-44. Yet this is a squad that's now won three in a row since its horrific 23-point collapse in Game 4 at Portland, one that launched its legion of skittish fans toward the panic button.

They were headed back there during this game, as the Mavs' 38-33 second-quarter lead went up in smoke in the final 5:38 of the first half. Still, they were fine, down five with three seconds to go.

That's when Terry attempted to sabotage the half, his own hot start and the game with a boneheaded foul that turned Lamar Odom's buzzer-beating half-court heave into three free throws with 0.7 seconds showing on the clock. After Odom made them all, Dirk Nowitzki, the recent king of talking about keeping one's composure, let a frustration elbow fly on Ron Artest for a technical and a fourth Lakers freebie and a 52-43 halftime lead.

Still, the Mavs say they didn't flinch in the locker room.

"It wasn't unraveling; it just seemed like it wasn't going our way," Shawn Marion said. "We just had to stay out there, stay aggressive and stay hungry."

Then came the start of the third quarter and not one, not two, but three consecutive lousy passes and -- biff, boom, bang -- the powerful Lakers, spurred by the red-hot Bryant, held a 60-44 lead.

There have been times when that would be it. Done. But on Monday there were no sunken shoulders, no blank stares.

Only a timeout called by Carlisle and an ensuing substitution: Corey Brewer for DeShawn Stevenson.

"We felt like we had a bad start to the third quarter, turned the ball over three or four times in a row, Kobe got hot there in the third," Nowitzki said. "It wasn't looking good. But we talked about it in the huddle: Just stick with it, try to get some stops and not turn the ball over. Just get a shot up every time and give ourselves at least a chance to make it."

And so they did. Brewer, who played all of four minutes in the six-game first-round series, provided instant life. He buried a 3-pointer in the corner. Drove and dished to Tyson Chandler for a dunk. By the time his lone stint of the game was up, 8½ minutes after being summoned, the Mavs trailed 71-66.

It seemed as though Brewer's play not only triggered some life flowing back into the Mavs, but also the realization that outside of a couple of mental lockups, they were doing what was necessary to win. Sure, Kobe was getting his, but the Mavs' defense, especially in crunch time, was handling everybody else, and then even Bryant in the final desperate moments.

The ultra-hyped center matchup played out in Dallas' favor, with Chandler (11 points, nine rebounds) outplaying Andrew Bynum, who finished with eight points and five rebounds in 29 minutes. Pau Gasol's 15 points on 5-of-10 shooting and 11 rebounds were not devastating.

Dallas' offense often got in transition, moved the ball, got five players in double figures and recorded 30 assists on 39 baskets.

The Mavs' bench outscored L.A.'s 40-25. Dallas stayed close on rebounds (44-40) although the Lakers held a considerable edge on the offensive glass. The Mavs took care of the basketball, outside of the wild third quarter when it committed seven of its 11 turnovers, yet cut a 16-point deficit to 78-71 to start the fourth quarter.

And in the battle of the superstars, Nowitzki -- with 28 points, 14 rebounds, three assists, two steals and a block -- measured up to Bryant's 36 points, five rebounds and three turnovers, including the crucial errant pass as he tried to drive past Kidd only to be cut off by Chandler to induce the key turnover.

"We just had to keep believing in one another and believe that the tide was going to turn," Chandler said. "We did a poor job closing out the half and it kind of cost us. Other than that, we won every quarter."

It's just one game, but it was a big one. Yes, because the Mavs got the win, but more so because of how they got it.

Carlisle calls it persistence.

Jeff Caplan covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.